- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

ROKHA, Afghanistan — Voter education here in the Panjshir Valley, where democracy is a mysterious notion and electricity is a luxury reserved for the rich, is being achieved with novel means ranging from loudspeaker trucks to amateur theater groups.

The effort serves as a tribute to the memory of Afghanistan’s tribal national hero, Ahmed Shah Masood, who was assassinated by al Qaeda suicide bombers four years ago and is buried a few miles from Rokha.

Dozens of rusted Russian tanks still litter the valley, bearing silent testimony to his skill as a general fighting the Soviet occupation and, later, the Taliban regime.

His portrait hangs above the entrance to the local boys’ school in Rokha, where a theater troupe last week was working to explain the importance of Afghanistan’s first parliamentary elections on Sunday.

“Why do we need a pahlawan?” yelled one actor, making a play on the phonetic similarity between “parliament” and the Dari word for wrestler. Another actor jumped on his back and began to wrestle him to the ground.

“No, it’s a parliament, a government of your representatives,” explained a third actor.

The boys laughed heartily, until another actor came out pretending to be a refugee.

“I am a refugee from the war,” she said. “There is nobody to trust. There is lots of bribery and corruption in the government now. With a parliament, you will have the authority to kick them out of office if they take bribes,” she explained.

The voter education program is the work of the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), an international organization tasked with making sure the election is free and fair.

The process is a challenge in a country having rugged mountain ranges, lacking passable roads and consisting of a population with an illiteracy rate of nearly 80 percent.

“The situation in Afghanistan requires creative ways to reach this population,” says Aleem Siddique, a JEMB official.

The agency uses 1,800 civic workers who try to educate the population through leaflets, stickers and banners. But with most villagers unable to read, other means have been found.

These include a traveling film program, a “mobile radio” — which Mr. Siddique concedes is simply a truck outfitted with speakers — and touring theater groups.

Once the elections begin, the JEMB — which is independent of both the United Nations and Afghan government — moves into the difficult task of managing the election itself, employing 160,000 workers and a complex process of validation to prevent repeat voting.

According to Mr. Siddique, the process of opening voting places and conducting pre-election activities has been easier in the southern and eastern provinces than expected, despite the area being controlled by the Taliban.

While some incidents delayed the opening of offices and voting places in Zabul and Uruzan, two areas of fervent Taliban support, most of the activities have gone unhindered.

Out of the thousands of local staff working with the JEMB, four have been killed, and Mr. Siddique points out that Afghanistan remains “a very dangerous country and we have no indication that they were killed for election activity.”

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